By T.T. Stern-Enzi

The very first essay in contemporary (and highly controversial) philosopher Peter Singer’s collection, Writings on an Ethical Life, questions the authority of “moral experts,” and as a layperson, I was struck by what seems to be the fundamental idea at the heart of the piece, which first appeared in 1972. Singer, quoting another philosopher (Ryle in his essay “On Forgetting the Difference Between Right and Wrong”), figures that it is not just the knowledge of right and wrong that matters, but that we must care about the difference between the two, because if we care, then we take steps to gather information that will lead us to make the right choice. We act in the service of either the right or the wrong.

It was seemingly fortuitous that I would find myself reading those very words just before screening Susanne Bier’s latest film, In A Better World, which recently earned the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. The Danish filmmaker (After the Wedding, Things We Lost in the Fire) crafts films that challenge audiences to consider questions of morality and ethics in daily life; how we treat other living souls, how the living survive and carry on after the death of loved ones. And in Better World, she presses on in that vein, but the enquiries always arrive embedded in intimate interpersonal dynamics. Bier does not lecture us from a safe, academic remove. She wants us to care about the choices, therefore her characters and the situations they find themselves in must touch us and make us feel not only the choices, but also the consequences.

Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a Danish doctor who routinely travels to Africa to serve a community in need, living under the shadow of an oppressive tribal warlord. Choices, in this case medical triage, must be made every day as patients arrive, some sick from common diseases, some critically injured at the hands of a sadistic bully. Anton is the honor-bound white knight in this world, even to the point of deciding that he must treat the warlord, when he is brought to the medical camp with an infected wound. The other village doctors and nurses, native Africans, leave Anton to do this work, which they believe is beyond their moral and ethical scope.

Yet, life is quite different for Anton back in Denmark. He returns to a broken home, the result of a dissolving marriage with secrets that rest squarely on Anton. His wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) is also a doctor and they have a teenage son Elias (Markus Rygaard) who is the victim of incessant bullying. Anton attempts to present a caring front as a lesson to Elias about how to respond to the bullying, but when Elias befriends Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), a Danish youth recently returning from London following the death of his mother, a new model challenges the honorable path that Anton lays forth.

Christian, angry with his father (Ulrich Thomsen) about his handling of his mother’s terminal cancer status, comes across as an Old Testament adherent, believing that life should be fought for and that there should be retribution for harms caused. Christian attacks the main bully pursuing Elias and steers the boy down a darker alley.

Religion is not expressly referenced in the film, but the idea of a place beyond the petty concerns of ego and pride, fear and self-loathing, a heaven, if you will, looms large. Of course, Bier, even when the film takes familiar turns, never strays from the point of showing us that these characters care about the choices they make. In A Better World illustrates that it is not just knowledge and hope for that better place that matters, but our own willingness to make it real.